2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Splitting Headache

Kashmir is the campaign that New Delhi has lost in key places

 

Just a few hours before Sameer Bhat, better known as Sameer Tiger, a most wanted Hizbul Mujahideen commander, was killed in a gun battle in Drabgam in South Kashmir this week, he had pushed online a short video of a local youngster being interrogated by him on suspicion of being an informer. Towards the end of the clip, Sameer Tiger pronounces a warning on an army officer that he surely meant for a much larger audience: “(Major) Shukla ko kehna sher ne shikar karna kya chhora, tujhe laga jungle hamara hai? (Tell Major Shukla just because the tiger had stopped hunting, you thought the jungle was yours?)” Major Shukla would take a hit in pursuit of Sameer Tiger soon after, his assault party would hunt Sameer Tiger down, but Tiger’s dire dare rings on: it’s a vicious survivor’s skirmish, Kashmir, and it’s often tough to tell hunter from hunted, one day’s trophy chasers can become another day’s trophies.

Over the last couple of years, there has been a resumed spike in the locate-chase-neutralize campaign of security forces against militants – 218 in 2017 and 62 so far this year. Many of those killed were marked men – men with foregrounded profiles in the insurgency lane who had become rallying figures for others. It is evident that policy is now driven by what Ram Madhav of the Bharatiya Janata Party revealed to this newspaper in an interview last year: “We will go after them (militants) with the utmost harshness.” But there are two other aspects to the hot pursuit in daily play. Jawans have taken the recoil – 83 were killed last year and 28 so far in 2018 – and militant ranks have swelled on the rebound. Nobody can quite put a number to the ranks of those who disappear from homes every other day, but everybody who has a sense of the ground would tell you that the number is not merely high but also alarming. Just recently, I spent some time visiting homes and crossroads in the villages of Pulwama and Shopian, tormented spurs to Kashmiri insurgency, and the line that dropped like a hammer into my notebook came from a boy barely into his teens: “Bring a truckful of guns to these parts and I assure you they will all be claimed within half an hour,” he told me, “Everyone is prepared to pick one up and put it to use, just ask around.” Shadowy protagonists of armed Kashmiri secession, this side or that of the cantankerous fence with Pakistan, need not invest in motivation or recruitment; New Delhi and its striking arms are doing a splendid job of it.

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2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A Scorpion Curled

The threat to a free media in India is never far away

 

One of the appointed margdarshaks of the Narendra Modi dispensation, L.K. Advani, was, at one time, minister for information and broadcasting. He ascended the job writing copiously on the derangements of the Indira-Sanjay Emergency regime (1975-1977) and issuing a rap on the media that still resounds as reminder of what must not be repeated: “When the Press was asked to bend, it crawled.”

A lead act of the same dispensation, the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, himself a victim of Emergency-era excesses, seldom misses an opportunity to recall the menace and darkness of those 19 months, or to champion enshrined constitutional freedoms. In his Foreword to The Emergency, an essential memoir of the era by the journalist, Coomi Kapoor, Jaitley wrote: “Political developments during this period were all aimed in the direction of suppressing democracy and turning India into a totalitarian state. Fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, 21 and 22 were suspended… The newspapers quickly began to toe the government line… The most alarming aspect of the Emergency, as this book so vividly narrates, was that Indira Gandhi managed to demonstrate how easy it was to misuse the Constitution and convert democracy into a constitutional dictatorship. In this journey, she seemed to have picked up some clues from Adolf Hitler…”

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2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

The master of spin

Ripples of the Modi marketing tide have already begun to roll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Those who noticed will already know that Graeme Smith, the former South Africa cricket captain, has flagged off the Narendra Modi campaign for 2019. For those that did not, here is how it happened. May 27, the first day of the last year of Modi’s term. A pulsating corner of the Wankhede arena, where the final game of the Indian Premier League was about to get under way. Smith stood kitted out in traditional regalia – rust kurta (Sunil Gavaskar would follow sporting saffron and oblige with his own pitch, but not yet), linen mantilla streaming down his neck to the knees, churidars and kolhapuris to boot. The pre-match show had warmed up just right when the big question was popped to Smith. It wasn’t who’d take the IPL trophy but what he thought of the “prime minister’s great fitness initiative” which had by then already been promoted to viral-grade. Off went Smith and his interlocutor from the screens, and all of the Wankhede green along with them, and in floated Modi in padmasana, hands folded – ” Mere pyare bhaiyon, behnon, deshwasiyon” and so on. By the time the clip ended and Smith came back on camera, he was shedding petals of adulation like a tree shaken in fall – great, stupendous, fantastic, so inspiring, I mean what can one say… The prime minister and his fitness footage would recur many times over that evening, many great cricketing trees would line up to be shaken, then fawn and foam with all manner of blandishment as contribution to a cunning work of propaganda. The closing fixture of IPL 2018 had become Modi’s opening gambit for the Indian premier league of 2019.

Say what you will of him, but Narendra Modi has a killer’s sense of the moment and an opportunist’s unabashedness to grab it. He is a genius of the photo-opportunity, such that he has reduced the camera to a duteous devotee of his postures. Postures that often require key members of his Close Protection Team to be off-frame so he is left in solitary grandeur while the shutters work. Postures that often make his VVIP guests or hosts wonder why India’s prime minister has suddenly broken into a solo pantomime of gesturing. Postures that he often astutely plots ahead with megalomaniacal attention to detail, as at Santiniketan recently when an ardent supporter was said to have breached security to arrive prostrated at his feet. There was no breach, as the untroubled demeanour of the SPG guard in the near background amply suggested. What was there was the crafting of a photograph that would burn the wires.

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Telegraph Calcutta

The dead tell tales

Violence is concealed by a lie, and the lie maintained by violence

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Somewhere in his copious meditations on the nature of Soviet Russia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had made a remark whose truth has far outlasted the life of his oppressor regime. Paraphrased, the sense Solzhenitsyn conveyed was that violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. Violence, inspired mass violence in particular, is easier enacted than erased. Very often, it lives on in the decibels of denial.

There lie layers and layers of subterfuge in the recurrent trapeze bouts of blame the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party play over 1984 and 2002. For every reference to the horror of 1984, the Congress brings up 2002, and for every reference to the unspeakable crimes of 2002, the BJP raises 1984. And so it plays on and on in a nauseous loop, the excess of allegation and the absence of admission. Perhaps, in a cynical fashion that we have unfortunately been inured to, it serves the interests of political parties to spar on, unmindful of the requirements of regret or redress or both. What that also serves, frighteningly, is the purpose of history’s chilling lesson to the future: mass murder can be ordered again and will bring few consequences other than arguments over it. Often profitable arguments.

Here lies another layer of the subterfuge. It involves us all, the lies we tell of ourselves to ourselves. Who kills? And maims and rapes and arsons about? We do. At the exhort of an H.K.L. Bhagat or a Sajjan Kumar or a Jagdish Tytler; a Maya Kodnani or a Babu Bajrangi, or some debased stoker of evil from the Sanatan Sanstha, or any or many of the lynch clubs that have sprung up across our geography? We hang the blame on them – and blame does lie on the vanguard that screams violence – but it is we, people among us, who enact that script.

For a talkative society, we tell very little of the essence of ourselves. We babble in the subconscious hope it will drown our truths. We’ve erected opaque mental monuments to Buddha and Gandhi to blind our eager resort to bloodletting. When the glare catches us red-handed, we wipe our sins on others and melt into our vast convenience of numbers.

What continues to cloy and will not go away is the memory nearly three decades old from a village called Logain near Bhagalpur in Bihar. It was the winter of 1989, the shivered evidence of crimes we collectively wreak and bear no responsibility for. It was eventually left to the vultures to rip the cover. The bodies, 116 of them, had lain there decomposing for six weeks. In that period, the village had grown wiser to the fineries of tilling – dead men made good compost. A lush winter crop of mustard had sprung on the bed of corpses they had laid. But the village was also to grow wiser to a thing or two about old idioms: dead men do tell tales, it is seldom they don’t. The stench had risen high off the field and the vultures had begun to swoop low. The killing had been consummated weeks ago, an entire settlement of Muslims on the edge of Logain. Their common guilt the villagers had consigned to a common grave.

The carnage was an open secret in the village but to the world beyond it was just a secret. Until the vultures arrived, followed by that rare thing called a policeman with a conscience. He had the crop shaved and the field dug up. The skulls flew into the sky as the spades got to work…

Some among us were there and told the story. Logain became, like many of our stories, the child of memory’s whore – an unwanted, forgotten consequence of collective shame. We are a nation eddying with bastard deeds.

Nellie. Moradabad. Bhiwandi. Hashimpura. Maliana. Meerut. Kanpur. Bhagalpur. Sopore. Baroda. Aligarh. Mumbai. Chittisinghpura. Ahmedabad. Delhi. We lay blood-litter on the streets and retreat into our homes. Nobody owns up. We decamp from facts and populate our horrors with clichéd characters of fiction – a violent mob, a murderous horde, a crowd screaming, slashing, burning, a mass that suddenly descended and vanished.

Who? Where from? Us. Here from. Every single time. It is we who pillage, rape and murder. Under wrongful excitement and exhortation. Under criminal instruction and protection, yes, but it is we who do it. We are the apparatchik of serial and periodic political madness, we are the midwives of the abortion of the senses. Then we wash our hands and line up for secular prabhat pheris, our opaque monuments to Buddha and Gandhi urgently recalled to veil memory and guilt.

The Babel Tower of inquiries and commissions, reports and recommendations that we have piled for ourselves is a route of escape. A talkative society talking endlessly. Or an argumentative society, as we are told on formidable authority, arguing on. About who and how. About cause and consequence. About crime and the absence of punishment. Never once do we dare look ourselves in the mirror. Never do we stop pointing fingers at others. Outraged, shrieking justice, baying retribution, if legal. Hush.

Where were you at the time? And what were you doing? You were electing Narendra Modi under whose watch sectarian violence proceeded unbridled. You were voting Sajjan Kumar and Jagdish Tytler back to respectable titles and hallowed portals. You were turning up in thousands to pirouette to the twisted bigotry of Pravin Togadia. You were letting Thackeray hone your hatreds.

We need to ask a few questions of each other. We need to ask questions of the households that were spared the mayhem of Trilokpuri. Ask the shopkeepers of Mandvi Ni Pole. Ask around in the bylanes of Hashimpura. Ask those who live across the charred remains of Gulberg. Ask the villagers of Logain, it’s been 28 winters since that resplendent mustard crop that contained a gene of murdered blood.

We cannot pretend being a civil society when we claim, every now and again, rights over uncivil liberties. We cannot invoke laws that we ourselves violate. We cannot look up to a Constitution that we trample underfoot.

There are a myriad contemporary Indian stories we have forgotten. They are all true stories. They have dates and datelines. They have pegs and dead people hanging by them. And there are, among us, the many hands that hung them there that have since been washed in collective and convenient forgetting.

The truth about mass murder in this country we haven’t learnt to tell. Even less to confront. Which is why someday, when that diabolical sloganeer appears again with a manic prescription and a surcharged bloodcry, we will again turn upon each other and consume. We live in times that implore us to beware of far too many dangers lurking about. Or above. Among them, let’s face it, we should count ourselves as well. That’ll be a beginning that awaits any people that wish to call themselves civilized.

TTLink

Telegraph Calcutta

The Hug That Hurt

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This one had all the elements of a surgical strike and more. It had surprise. It had stealth. It had precision. It had transparency too – a strike carried out in full view of whoever cared to watch, a strike mentally pre-meditated, a strike dealt with easy deliberation. A smiling assassin’s strike.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has got himself marked the world over as the man who hugs; whether it is a welcome hug or warmly received or not, Modi hugs. And it is he who springs the hug. On Friday, he got sprung upon.

When Congress president Rahul Gandhi closed what must rank as his finest hour in Parliament on Friday afternoon, it had struck few he wasn’t done yet, that he planned to put a seal on his performance with an act that would become the indelible emboss and image of the day.

He had just closed his blistering attack on Narendra Modi raj with a disarming hail on the Treasury.

“No matter how much you hate me, no matter how much anger you spew at me, no matter that you call me Pappu, you and your followers… you can call me all kinds of names. But no matter that you call me Pappu. I am Congress, and all these people are Congress, the sensibility of the Congress has made this country, do not forget. That sensibility is inside of all of you and I will extract it from inside each of you. I will draw the love out of you, I will convert all of you to the Congress….”

The House was still abuzz, when Rahul left his second row on the Opposition benches and began to manoeuvre his way round the arched note-takers’ row in the well towards the Prime Minister. In no time, he stood across Modi, hand extended. Modi took it. Some in the benches behind him stood up to applaud. From the Speaker’s chair, Sumitra Mahajan smiled indulgently.

Just then, the strike.

Rahul fell upon Modi, chest full on upon chest, cheeks, one clean, the other famously stubbly, in historic proximity. They could have whispered sweet nothings and nobody would have known, the Lok Sabha’s sensitive microphonics notwithstanding.

“This is not done, this is no way…” Mahajan began to protectively protest on behalf of the Prime Minister, but the deed was done by then.

Modi had been taken by the Rahul strike. Smothered. Defenceless. Aghast too a bit on who had come to drop on him. Stills from the moment would reveal to you a man rendered helpless and stricken, for once not a man who commanded the cameras but had been shown up by them.

He recovered only to gesture an offended surprise with his palm. Then he recovered a little more and took Rahul’s hand. Then, as if suddenly conscious of the cameras and keen that they remain kind on him, he recovered even more. He motioned Rahul back, took his hand again and said something and guffawed. It’s moot whether he was indeed amused.

TT Link

 

2018, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

A puppet in torment

Shakespearean tragedy has a canny kinship with Kashmir

When you’ve decided to dig in, it might be advisable to ensure you don’t burrow so deep that scrambling out is no longer an option. The Jammu and Kashmir chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, is darting, helplessly but consciously, towards making a political grave of her power dugout. Her serial capitulations to the provincial shenanigans and the national worldview of her chosen partner, the Bharatiya Janata Party, are as astonishing as they are unsurprising.

Unsurprising because a dark, and yet unstated though frightfully abject, compromise was written into her decision to fall in step with the BJP after prolonged prevarication. Astonishing because no Kashmiri chief minister in living memory has been so sublime in submitting to routine rebuff and remonstration at the hands of an ally – the kind of heckling and humiliation that cannot be going down terribly well with the constituency she so painstakingly built over the years.

The latest of many snubs that Mehbooba has taken is her government’s declaration, doubtless extracted by some backroom arm-twisting, to the Supreme Court that Major Aditya Kumar of the 10th Garhwal Rifles was not named in an FIR by her police as one of those responsible for opening fire on a mob near Shopian that resulted in the deaths of two civilians in late January. If this isn’t a patent lie, it most certainly is a deferent volte-face few will fail to notice, not least her unquiet south Kashmiri citizenry. Mehbooba’s police and her party – the Peoples Democratic Party – had openly rowed with the army over the incident; Major Kumar’s father, himself a serving army officer, had gone to the Supreme Court protesting that his son was sought to be unfairly prosecuted. But Mehbooba sounded firm about addressing the killings, “Anguished over the tragic loss of lives in Shopian,” she had tweeted soon after the incident, “… have ordered a magisterial probe into the unfortunate incident and asked the enquiry to be completed within 20 days… We will take the probe to its logical conclusion. Justice and peace are two sides of the same coin.” Her counsel’s submission to the Supreme Court on Monday – my lords we have not named a Major Aditya Kumar – clarified to us yet again that Mehbooba is allowed neither magistracy over a probe she’s ordered nor her promised logical conclusions.

Continue reading “A puppet in torment”

2017, Column, State of Play, Telegraph Calcutta

No longer ashamed – Ayodhya at 25

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

December 6th, 2017: Down one of several stone-flagged lanes that toddle off Marienplatz, Munich town hall plaza, there still operates a rather prosperous enterprise called the Hofbrauhaus. It’s one of several kindred addresses around the area pledged to the central Bavarian celebration – the ooze and oomph of beer. They are all, each one of them, establishments of gregarious hubbub – voluptuous symphonies bound about their high-arched halls, beermaids shuffle about the tables with their jugfuls, decanting foaming oceans of the house brew. The floors tinkle, with glass and unrestrained merriment.

Hofbrauhaus is one of them and a little apart. It is patronized for more than just its beer and knucklewurst. Hofbrauhaus is where Adolf Hitler made his first address to the Nazi party in 1920. Through the flaming decades that followed, Hofbrauhaus remained a celebration of Nazi ways and values, and that’s partly what gets Hofbrauhaus its bloated clientele today. It’s a slice of Hitler. But a forbidden slice. You’ll find no trace of him or his creed. Nobody so much as whispers Adolf on the precincts, god forbid Hitler, or actually German law. Germany has institutionalized provisions called Volksverhetzung, or incitement of hatred, which prohibit all Nazi symbols, totems, hate speech, incitement, anything that is a reminder of Hitler. It’s a custom strictly adhered to in Germany.

It comes from the fear and the determination of no repetitions.

It comes from regret that’s yet unrelieved.

Most of all, it comes from a deep and collective sense of shame at the unspeakable horrors Germany and Germans once feistily brought upon. Nie Wieder, never again.

Regret can relieve wrongdoing; it implies admission of turpitude and, more pertinently, an undertaking of corrections and probably also a pledge of no repetitions.

In the 25 years since Ayodhya’s Babri Masjid was razed, our discourse has been hauled in the opposite direction – from shuddering shame to the discarding of that shame and the adoption of audacities that undermine the fundamental underpinnings of India and its Constitution.

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